After Buying Back the Firm, Harley-Davidson's New Execs Take Their Act on the Road

UPDATED 07/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

As they snaked through rush-hour traffic near Chicago, the 25 booted, blue-jeaned and helmeted bikers on their massive Harley-Davidsons drew glares from evening commuters. The response might have been friendlier had the nine-to-fivers realized that this was no Hell's Angels outing: It was just a group of corporate executives celebrating the closing of a business deal. "Sorry, fellas," lead biker Vaughn Beals explained when a contemptuous comment came over his CB. "It's just Harley going home."

And so it was—a four-day, 900-mile motorcycle trek from the Harley plant in York, Pa. to its original headquarters in Milwaukee, marking the $75 million purchase of the Harley-Davidson Corporation from AMF (the conglomerate had acquired it for $14 million in 1969). Nine of the new company's 13 executives participated in the trip. Among them was Willie G. Davidson, 48, grandson of one of the firm's four founders, son of a former president and himself a motorcycle design stylist legendary among bikers. "I was practically crying today," Davidson admitted at journey's end. "I watched my dad and how the company grew, and after the AMF takeover I didn't think I would ever have a chance to be an owner."

Unlike Davidson, most of the caravan bikers were fairly new to the sport. "Like many of the people who have got into biking as professional managers, I became a dyed-in-the-wool enthusiast," says Beals, 53, the new chairman and chief executive officer. "Riding a Harley is like when I was 16 and got the car by myself for the first time." As an AMF vice-president, Beals helped cut the umbilical cord when AMF decided to de-emphasize its leisure products. "What was right for Harley-Davidson," he says, "was not right for the parent company."

Despite Japanese inroads into the American motorcycle market, Harley-Davidson, which was founded in 1903 and immortalized in such cultural landmarks as the 1969 cult film Easy Rider, still leads the heavy (over 900 cc) motorcycle field. With a $12.3 million profit in 1980, the company is developing a new line of middle-weight (500 to 900 cc) motorcycles to compete head-on with Japanese imports, principally Honda. Although the new models will not be introduced for another three to five years, Willie Davidson is already working on prototypes. "We're in the fashion business," he explains. "No one needs a motorcycle. It's your toy or hobby. It has to do something for your ego."

The V-twin engine, teardrop gas tank, low-slung seat and sculpted exhaust pipes are trademarks of the Harley, and though Davidson hints that his closely guarded designs for the new medium-weight bikes diverge from the classic, he is confident that a "buy American" ethic among riders will work in his favor. His new fellow officers share that optimism, counting heavily on the Harley mystique. "It's the only product name I've ever seen that people tattoo on their bodies," says Beals. "And once that name is on their arm, they'd be a bit embarrassed to buy a Honda."

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